Monday, March 26, 2018

Napolitano’s Inventive Album of Time-Consciousness

This Friday Odradek Records will release its latest solo album of Italian pianist Pina Napolitano. Napolitano first came to my attention when Odradek released her recording of the complete piano music of Arnold Schoenberg, but I must confess that the cognitive scientist that continues to lurk within me was as interested in her background in Classical Philology as it was in her approach to playing Schoenberg’s music. In some respects the breadth of her scholarly background is as evident in her new album, entitled Brahms the Progressive and currently available for pre-order from, as it was in her Schoenberg album, if not more so.

Those not up on their Schoenberg may not know that the source of the title of this new album comes from Schoenberg himself. It was originally the title of a radio talk that Schoenberg delivered in 1933 as part of a celebration of the centennial of the birth of Johannes Brahms on May 7, 1833. This lecture took in more than most radio listeners could accommodate, but the world had to wait until 1950 for a printed version to appear in the collection Style and Idea. Schoenberg’s introductory note described it as “a fully reformulated version of my original lecture;” and it would be subsequently re-edited by Leonard Stein for an expanded edition of Style and Idea, which was first published in 1975.

There is much to be gained from reading this essay. On my first encounter, I was particularly aware that Schoenberg had as much to say about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as he had to say about Brahms. However, what struck me the most was the way in which he felt it was necessary to discuss the nature of composition for the sake of better informing the attentive listener. As a practicing musician with well-cultivated listening skills, Napolitano could approach the essay from a different point of view. As her album notes observe, hers was a perspective on the nature of time-consciousness or, as she put it, “the past continuously rethought, relived, and in a certain sense changed by the present.”

That perspective was given a more poetic account in the opening lines of “Burnt Norton,” the first of the Four Quartets poems by T. S. Eliot:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
For that matter, Eliot’s text amounts to a poetic account of the more prosaic text in the Confessions of Augustine of Hippo, analysis that is almost frighteningly consistent with what “wet brain” scientists have been discovering about time-consciousness over the last few decades.

Thus, when I listen to the two collections of short pieces by Brahms (Opera 118 and 119) on this new album, the act of doing so is informed by not only my own crude attempts to play these pieces some 30-odd years ago but also the many ways in which I have listened to performances since then, both in concert and on recording. Indeed, the same can be said of the recordings of the Opus 1 sonata of Alban Berg and Anton Webern’s Opus 27 “Variations for piano.” Indeed, I came to this album with listening experience of every selection, including the Webern pieces without opus numbers, the 1906 piece for piano, the 1924 “Piece for children,” and the 1925 piece “in the tempo of a minuet.”

As one who cannot overlook structural properties, I was struck by how the entire album was arranged. The Berg sonata served as the “keystone” of the album’s “arch” structure. It was preceded by the early Webern piece, which, in turn, was preceded by the 1924 piece, which might be called “a young person’s guide to the twelve-tone row.” On the other side the Berg sonata was followed by the “minuet tempo” piece, which was then followed by Opus 27. This Second Viennese School “core” was preceded by Opus 118 and followed by Opus 119.

I find it interesting that the Brahms’ pieces were all composed late in the composer’s life. Berg and Webern, on the other hand, were younger and going through periods of transition, many of which were influenced by their awareness of similar transitional efforts of Schoenberg, their shared teacher. Yet what pervades the entire album is a sense of music emerging from the “immediate present” of each of the composers, a “time present” with any number of different perspectives of “time past” while, perhaps, also thinking of the “time future” that will eventually “contain” their respective efforts.

Mind you, none of these abstruse philosophical perspectives need have any impact on how one actually listens to this new album. What is important is the expressiveness that Napolitano brings to her interpretations of Brahms, which reminds us that the immediate present of listening to her is just as vivid as Schoenberg’s immediate present when he listened to the late piano music of Brahms being played. Similarly, the vividness of that immediate present of Schoenberg and his pupils then “progresses” through time to become the immediate present in which Napolitano can play the works of all three of those composers. In other words the cognitive exercises that emerge from listening to this album’s scope of different “times past” may then result in a more informed approach to listening to Napolitano’s earlier all-Schoenberg album. All of those experiences may then resonate in subsequent acts of listening to just about any music from the nineteenth and earlier centuries.

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